David Papineau The Tyranny of Common Sense

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David Papineau
The Tyranny of Common Sense
Sometimes I despair of my philosophical colleagues. They are so conservative. I don’t mean this in a political sense. In conventional party-political terms, most professional philosophers are probably well to the left of centre. As a group, they have a strong sense of fairness and little commitment to the social status quo. But this political open-mindedness doesn’t normally carry over to their day jobs. When it comes to philosophical ideas, they are congenitally suspicious of intellectual innovation. In their eyes, a good philosophical theory is one that agrees with the views found on the Clapham omnibus. Few philosophers, in the English-speaking world at least, think of philosophy as a source of radical new ideas. Rather they view it as way of systematising the everyday reactions of ordinary people.
What a dispiriting ambition. If I thought that this was all philosophy could do, I would quit straight away. Common sense is boring enough to start with, even before it is dissected by analytic philosophers. When I came into philosophy in the late 1960s, I thought of philosophy quite differently. I saw it as a way of making everything new. It would cut away the dead trees of outmoded tradition and replace them with innovative insights. This was surely what the great philosophers of the past had achieved. They hadn’t just codified the views of ordinary people. Rather they had opened up whole new avenues of thought. It was a surprise and disappointment to me to discover that many other philosophers, far from sharing this ambition, saw things just the other way round. For them, philosophy’s job isn’t to clear away the dead growth, but to preserve it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to discover the conservative tenor of twentieth-century philosophy. If I had been introduced to philosophy among the complacent spires of Oxford, rather than in the more bracing air of South Africa and Cambridge, it would have been hard to avoid it. The grand masters of mid-twentieth century Oxford ‘ordinary language philosophy’ were often quite explicit about their deference to everyday thought. Linguistic philosophy focused on the analysis of existing concepts, and rationale for this focus was that our everyday conceptual scheme embodied the wisdom of the ages.
Consider, for example, J.L. Austin, in a much-quoted passage from ‘A Plea for Excuses’: “Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth marketing, in the lifetimes of many generations; these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon.”
Or, to take another example in a similar vein, P.F. Strawson explained the ‘descriptive metaphysics’ of his book Individuals as a method designed to “…lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure…a massive central core of human thinking which has no history…the commonplaces of the least refined thinking…the indispensable core of the conceptual equipment of the most sophisticated human beings”.
Thankfully, the banalities of ordinary language philosophy are no longer with us, done to death by a thousand miserable attempts to solve philosophical problems by careful attention to upper-middle-class English usage. But the intellectual conservatism it embodied lives on in its philosophical successors. The final dispatch of ordinary language philosophy is widely attributed to W.V.O. Quine’s demolition of the analytic-synthetic distinction, and his subsequent championing of a ‘naturalism’ which allies philosophy with science. Still, when it comes to intellectual innovation, Quine was scarcely any less conservative than his Oxonian opponents. In his eyes, the main principle governing theoretical change is a ‘maxim of minimum mutilation’. He recognized that sometimes the replacement of outmoded ideas cannot be avoided. But any such changes should be kept to a minimum. Quine saw no virtue in wholesale intellectual reform. Instead we should conform to ‘our natural tendency to disturb the total system as little as possible’.
Quine was an epistemologist and metaphysician. But similar attitudes to intellectual change can be found within recent moral philosophy. Perhaps the most influential moral philosopher of the latter half of the twentieth century was Quine’s Harvard colleague John Rawls. On the political level, Rawls moral system endorsed the principles of liberal social democracy. But his philosophical methodology was far more conservative. Rawls urged the method of ‘reflective equilibrium’, which measured moral systems against pre-theoretical moral intuitions about particular cases. Such intuitions could on occasion be jettisoned, if they stood in the way of some overarching moral principle. But, by the nature of the case, any system that satisfies the requirements of reflective equilibrium must respect the great preponderance of everyday moral reactions.
When I complain to my colleagues about this kind of underlying philosophical conservativism, they often respond that it is unavoidable that philosophy should defer to everyday intuitions. After all, how else are philosophical views to be tested? In science the ultimate test of a theory is its empirical match with experiment and observation. But philosophy, argue my colleagues, has no empirical data to call its own. Philosophers don’t conduct experiments to see whether their predictions are accurate. Rather their theories are tested in a different way. Where scientists compare their theories with empirical observations, philosophers compare theirs with pre-theoretical intuitions. Given this, it is inevitable that the best philosophical theories will be those that match everyday common sense as far as possible. Or so at least my colleagues argue.
I don’t buy this at all. It can’t possibly be a good idea to assess philosophical theories by the extent to which they preserve everyday intuitions. The trouble is that everyday intuitions are often nothing more that bad old theories in disguise. Any amount of nonsense was once part of common sense, and much nonsense no doubt still is. It was once absolutely obvious that the heavens revolve around the earth each day, that the heart is the seat of the soul, that without religion there can be no morality, that perception involves the reception of sensible forms, and so on. If philosophy had been forced to respect these everyday intuitions, we would still be in the intellectual dark ages.
One of the defining principles of the modern world view which emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that tradition on its own carries no weight in argument. The mere fact that past authorities endorsed some proposition is no reason to believe it. All claims should be assessed on their merits, against the tribunals of observation and reason. It is highly ironic that twentieth-century English-speaking philosophy, supposedly the paradigm of rational investigation, should have forgotten this basic lesson.
In the end, I don’t think that philosophy is fundamentally different from science. Both are in the business of developing comprehensive theories that accurately describe the universe we live in. The ultimate test of philosophical theories is that they should tally with the independent information we get about that universe through our senses, just as it is with scientific theories. And so it is no requirement in philosophy, any more than it is in science, that it should tally with previously received intuitions which as often as not amount to nothing but fossilized old theories.
Some philosophers dislike the idea that they are in the same business as science. They think that this demeans their discipline, denying it any special subject matter or method. But the view that philosophical theories are eventually answerable to empirical evidence does not mean that there is nothing special about philosophy. For one thing, philosophical questions often have much greater generality than scientific ones. Where scientists think about viruses, electrons or stars, philosophers think about spatiotemporal continuants, universals and identity. These categories don’t relate to specific branches of science, but structure all our thinking about the natural world. Another difference is that philosophy characteristically gets involved when our thinking is in some kind of theoretical tangle, of a kind that can’t be resolved simply by gather new empirical data. Our existing theories harbour alternative lines of thought that lead to conflicting conclusions. In such cases, progress requires an unravelling of premises, including perhaps an unearthing of implicit assumptions that we didn’t realise we had, and a search for alternative positions that don’t generate further contradictions.
Perhaps philosophy has its own characteristic questions and techniques. Still, isn’t philosophy still essentially subservenient to science, my colleagues will worry, if its only job is to generalize scientific findings and tidy up theoretical tangles? Perhaps there is something to this thought. Still, if the choice is between being handmaiden of science or an apologist for the intellectual status quo, I know which option I would choose.
In any case, I think philosophy is often far more important than a mere handmaiden to science. The greatest philosophers of the past didn’t just respond to the scientific developments, but helped to shape them. When Descartes argued that the non-mental world contains nothing but matter characterized by size, shape and motion, and that our experience of colours, sounds and smells is due to the impact of this primary matter on our sense organs, he wasn’t just responding to existing scientific ideas. Rather he was moulding the whole way science would be done from then on, placing the search for mechanical mechanisms at the centre of the scientific enterprise. Again, when David Hume laid out his new picture of the human mind, shorn of any non-natural powers of reason instilled by God, he set the agenda for the human sciences, structuring the way that subsequent psychologists, economists and anthropologists carried out the study of man.
What about the moral realm? Maybe metaphysics and the philosophy of mind are continuous with science, and to that extent under no obligation to respect the intuitive dicta of common sense. But it is by no means so obvious that our moral intuitions have no bearing on the truths of moral philosophy. What other way is there of deciding moral theses, if not by testing them against our basic reactions to particular cases?
I agree that the moral realm is different. Moral claims aren’t tested against sensory observations in the same way as factual theories are. Rather the truths of morality are in some way grounded in our intuitive human reactions. Morality must eventually rest on our evolved dispositions to respond emotionally to social contexts. But even here I think we must be very careful not to overemphasize the importance of initial common sense intuitions. Moral common sense is shaped not just by our natural reactions alone, but also by moral theories. After all, that is the whole point of moral deliberation and debate—to ensure that that our first reactions are tempered by the requirements of coherence and non-arbitariness. However, this then means that there is plenty of room for moral common sense to go astray, misled by faulty reasoning or failure to attend to significant factors. It was once the merest common sense that slavery is acceptable. Nor do we have to go to the distant past to find contestable moral intuitions. Consider this passage from Contemporary Moral Philosophy (1967), by yet another mid-century Oxford “philosopher-king”, G.J Warnock (later Sir Geoffrey Warnock, Principal of Hertford College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University): “The ideals of the storm-trooper are . . . liable to be enormously destructive; those of the traditional gentleman for the most part fairly harmless . . .” Well, harmlessness comes in degrees, and no doubt the “traditional gentleman” Warnock had in mind wasn’t as harmful as “the storm-trooper”. But one would have had to look pretty hard fifty years ago to find a “traditional gentleman” who didn’t think that homosexuality is an abomination, that black people are inferior, and that women should remain in the home.
Philosophical conservatism is especially rife in one of my own specialities, the philosophy of mind. This is an area where there is plenty of scope to query common sense. Everyday thinking embodies a rich structure of assumptions about the mind, and it is by no means clear that all these assumptions are sound. In particular, there are many recent scientific findings that cast substantial doubt on our intuitive view of the mind. For a start, take Benjamin Libet’s work on the genesis of actions. Libet’s experiments indicate that, at least when it comes to basic bodily movements, our conscious choices occur a full third of a second after neural activity in the brain begins to prompt the behaviour. This certainly casts doubt on our intuitive conviction that our actions are instigated by our conscious choices. Again, the work of David Milner and Melvyn Goodale on the separation of the dorsal and ventral streams in visual processing (the ‘where’ and ‘what’ streams) suggests that our basic bodily movements aren’t guided by our conscious visual awareness but by some more basic mechanism. And then there are the many experiments on ‘change blindness’. These show that we often fail to see large visible changes occurring right in front of us, and so question the intuitive compelling idea that we are aware of pretty much everything within our field of vision.
However, when philosophers come across this kind of work, they don’t view as an exciting challenge to the everyday view of the mind. Rather, their first reaction is to distrust the interpretation of the scientific experiments. In their view, there is no way that our everyday view of the mind can be threatened by scientific findings. Our intuitive conception of the mind is sacrosanct, so there must be something wrong with scientific arguments that cast doubt on it.
Sometimes this resistance is rationalised by positing a principled distinction between ‘personal level’ claims about the mind and ‘sub-personal’ accounts of the mechanisms operating in the brain. The idea is that science can tell us about the sub-personal level, but the personal level is something that we need to find out about by commonsensical means. But this distinction seems a desperate device. Of course, there can be differences in the grain of different descriptions of any system, and we should not suppose that interesting claims about the parts will automatically translate into interesting claims about the whole. But we can agree about this without adopting the unmotivated and indefensible view that our intuitive large-scale picture of the mind is somehow insulated against any threat from by scientific findings.
I myself have recently become interested a rather different way in which recent scientific findings threaten to overturn our everyday view of the world. Here the evidence comes from quantum mechanics rather than psychological research. It will be worth spending the last part of this article explaining this issue in some detail. For it is possible that quantum theory will make us rethink nearly everything that we currently take for granted. This is because quantum theory suggests that our history is not the only history, but just one of many real histories, in fact one of all the physically possible histories, including histories in which The Philosophers’ Magazine does not contain this article, and histories in which you went for a walk five minutes ago, not to mention histories in which you married a different spouse, and histories in which you do not exist at all.
Of course, this is a very strange view, and it should be said that it isn’t endorsed by most practising physics. But it may well be the only good way of understanding quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics as understood by practising physicists is effectively incoherent, and the only way that physics students can be made to accept it is by being repeatedly told that it is unscientific to ask awkward questions. But among those who are ready to ask questions, the view that there must be multiple realities is fast gaining adherents.
The reasons are not too hard to understand. Let us start with the fact that quantum mechanics characterizes microscopic systems, like a moving electron, say, by a mathematical device called a wave function. This function does not specify exact values for the position or velocity of the electron. Instead it specifies the probabilities that the electron will turn up with any of a number of different positions or velocities when it is measured. Because of this probabilistic element, a number of early interpreters of the theory, including Albert Einstein, concluded that quantum mechanics must be incomplete. Since electrons clearly do have exact positions and velocities, they reasoned, the wave function can only be a measure of our ignorance, a specification of the odds on the electron already being in some given place, even though we don't yet know which. This response has now been effectively discredited. For over fifty years ingenious physicists have been devising experiments to decide between Einstein and the view that the wave function is physically real, and the results have decided against Einstein every time. Electrons don’t always have definite positions. Sometimes they really are in a “superposition” of all the different places allowed by their wave functions.
Quantum mechanics also contains an equation, called Schrödinger's equation, which specifies how the wave functions of microscopic systems will evolve smoothly and deterministically over time. This is analogous to the way that Newton's laws of motion determine the evolution of a body's position and velocity over time. Except that, where Newton's laws deal with actual positions and velocities, the Schrödinger equation describes the evolution of probabilities. So quantum mechanics, as normally understood, needs to appeal to another kind of process, in order to turn probabilities into actualities. This second process is commonly known as the "collapse of the wave function", and is supposed to occur when a measurement is made. So, for example, if the electron collides with a sensitive plate, and registers in a particular position, the probability for that position instantaneously jumps to one, and for all other positions to zero.
However, if you stop to think about it, this is little short of inconsistent. What qualifies the collision with the plate as a "measurement"? After all, the joint system of plate plus electron can itself be viewed as a large collection of microscopic particles. And as such the joint system will be characterized by a probabilistic wave function, which will then evolve smoothly in accord with Schrödinger equation. From this perspective, there will then be no collapse into an actual position after all, but simply probabilities of the electron being in different places on the plate once more.
In practice, most physicists avoid the inconsistency by assuming that a wave-collapsing measurement occurs whenever a big enough physical system is involved. But how big is big enough? It seems arbitrary to draw the line at any particular point. This is the moral of "Schrödinger's cat". Imagine that some unfortunate cat is put in a chamber which will fill with poison if the electron registers on the left half of the plate, but not if the electron registers on the right half. Until the wave function collapses, reality remains undecided between the two possibilities, alive or dead. So when does reality decide? When the electron hits the plate? When the poison kills the cat? Or only when a human enters the room and sees if the cat is alive or dead? Nothing in quantum mechanics seems to provide any good answer.
What if reality never decides? That is, what if the wave function never collapses, with the electron therefore keeping positive probabilities both of being on the left and of being on the right of the plate, and the cat therefore keeping positive probabilities both of being alive and of being dead, and your brain therefore keeping positive probabilities both of seeing the cat alive and seeing it dead? At first sight this might seem to contradict our experience. When we look, we either see a live cat or a dead cat, not some mixture of both. But we need to ask: what exactly would it be like to have a brain whose wave function contained positive probabilities both for seeing a live cat and for seeing a dead cat? There is no obvious reason to suppose that this would be some kind of fuzzy experience, like seeing a superimposed photo of a live and dead cat. Instead, perhaps it would be like being two people, one of whom sees a dead cat, and the other live cat.
According to this view, when an intelligent being interacts with a complex quantum system, its brain acquires a corresponding complexity, each element of which then underpins a separate centre of consciousness. One version of your brain sees a live cat, another a dead cat. It is as if reality has an extra dimension, alongside the familiar dirmensions of time and space, with your brain, along with the cat and the poison, having different properties at different positions in this dimension.
Of course, if your two consciousnesses are both present in reality, we need some account of why neither becomes aware of the other. But this too can be explained. There are possible experimental circumstances, akin those which showed Einstein wrong, that would demonstrate that your brain contained both live cat and dead cat perceptions. But with a system as complex as a human brain, these experiments are far too difficult to carry out. And this is why the live cat element in your brain never finds out about the dead cat element: even though both elements are present in reality, the precise circumstances which would allow them to influence each other are too complicated ever to occur.
The mathematical underpinnings of this no-collapse view of quantum mechanics were first worked out by Hugh Everett over forty years ago. Since then it has received very little attention from philosophers. Perhaps, given the points I have made above, this is unsurprising. It is harder to imagine anything further from common sense than Everettian metaphysics. This strongly disinclines philosophers from taking it seriously. But they may be making a big mistake. Of course, future developments in fundamental physics could come up with some alternative way of fixing quantum mechanics. But I wouldn’t bet on it. It is not at if crazy theories from science have never turned out to be correct. (Think of the theory that the earth moves, or that the sun is a star, or that all matter is made of atoms.)
If Everett is right, a lot of common sense thinking will be quite wrong. For instance, take our everyday ideas about personal identity. We normally think of ourselves as beings that persist over time, and indeed such thinking is central to all our plans, projects and ambitions. But if Everett is right, we don’t persist in the normal way, but are constantly splitting into multiple descendants, like amoebae. How exactly should we then think about the future, if there is no single “me” who will exist tomorrow?
Derek Parfit, one of the few contemporary philosophers who isn’t in thrall to common sense, has long argued on independent grounds that it is better not to think of the future in terms of the survival of a single “me”. But most of his arguments have hinged on outlandish science-fiction thought experiments, and this has allowed the majority of philosophical commentators to maintain that the conventional thinking about persons is quite adequate to our everyday purposes. This response will no longer be available if Everett is right. If we really are splitting all the time, we will have no alternative but to find some new way of thinking about our relationship to our futures.
Or consider probability. As we normally think of it, this is a measure of the objective uncertainty of future events. Different possible futures compete to be real, and their probabilities measure their current standings in this competition. But not so given Everettian metaphysics. Here all futures with a positive quantum mechanical chance (the cat lives, the cat dies) are sure to occur. Probability must mean something different.
Even if it doesn’t measure uncertainty, probability will still be a guide to action: the most rational choice will still be the one that brings good things in the most probable future. But, where on orthodox thinking this was a matter of acting in the interests of the future self which is doing best in the competition to become real, on the Everettian view all your possible future selves will become real, and rational choice is a matter of favouring your high-probability actual successors over the low-probability ones. This makes a kind of sense—perhaps more sense in the end than orthodox thinking—but it certainly not the way we normally think.
These are strange waters in which nobody really knows how to navigate. Yet, given the chances of Everettianism turning out true, it is surely a matter of some importance to know what it implies for our place in the universe. Moreover, this is an essentially philosophical task, for it will require us to unearth some of our deepest implicit assumptions, and hold them up to critical examination. It will be a great pity if contemporary philosophers fail to take up this challenge, simply because of their unreasonable fondness for the familiarities of common sense.

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